Conference speakers: Get paid–or pay up!

This week I received an offer to speak at a big, blockchain expo in Switzerland. That’s what I do in a mid-life career transition—or at least, it’s what I aspire to do. Last year, I presented at conferences, workshops, corporate retreats and trade shows on four continents. It’s not yet a full time career. Often, I cannot find paid opportunities to present—and so I teach, write, consult or refine my presentation to keep it relevant.

I hate marketing my presentation, but I’ve done a pretty good job of creating an industry reputation. And so, most of these presentation gigs begin with an offer from the host or producer. But like most presentation offers, this one came with strings attached. (More accurately, a ball, chain and an anchor ware attached!). Below, I have pasted the original invitation that I received—and the conversation that is still in process today.

Surprise! — “Offers” to speak at conferences and expos are not offers at all. Sure, the show needs talented presenters. But their outreach is just a sales pitch. Rather than paying for talent, the owner or producer wants their talent to pay them.

And so, responding to such offers is a carefully crafted form of triage; it’s a bit like trying to revive a gunshot victim who has entered the emergency room without a heartbeat. My ability to earn money as a speaker is on life support, even before receiving an “offer”. Why is this?! Let’s dig in…


Do Conferences Pay for Speakers?

There are two types of speakers: Headliners and techies. But, sometimes the headliner is one of the techies. I prefer to classify speakers as Celebrity or Expert.

Celebrity speakers are bought to create buzz. They deliver the keynote address and they get big fees. But many conferences have no big celebrity. They are typically found at prominent trade shows or events that cater to a television audience. Think of Billy Crystal or Whoopi Goldberg at the Academy Awards – or Mikhail Gorbachev at a corporate or non-profit.

Celebrity speakers get big bucks. Hillary Clinton was never president, yet she pulls in $400,000 to appear at an industry event.

But, what about speakers who bring critical content? These individuals are the meat-and-potatoes of any conference. Along with customer prospects, this is what visitors pay for. If you compare a trade conference to a restaurant, expert speakers are both the chefs and the food itself. They prepare, refine, package and deliver a consumable. But, do they get paid for their work?

To understand the expert speaker, let’s go back to the celebrity speaker for just a moment. These well-compensated speakers are typically an athlete, entertainer, comedian or former politician. Often, their presentation is unrelated to the conference or show venue. Their presence is primarily to create buzz, entertain or ensure eyeballs. The hosts see value because the celebrity fills seats or increases TV audience. This brings in advertising dollars. Of course, having a former president or movie star launch your agriculture expo creates lasting memories which raises awareness of future events. Their value is clear.

But you are not an athlete, comedian or former president. If you are an astronomer, you are probably not Carl Sagan (he’s dead) or Neil deGrasse Tyson. You’re just a darn good expert with wit, charm and an ability to excite a tough audience and help them leave with new ideas.

If you have tried to market your charm and your live presentation, then you have probably come up against the ‘reverse-value’ gambit. It’s like getting punched in the face 3 times:

  1. Most conferences and shows do not pay their speakers
  2. Often, they do not cover the cost of travel or a hotel. But, it gets worse…
  3. They want each speaker to pay big money to appear on stage. I am routinely asked to pay $5000 or $10,000 for the privilege of exposure!

But wait! Aren’t industry experts and pundits the main entrée? After all, we develop and deliver the information that attendees consume. Some–like me–make a living from live presentations. We travel abroad in the hope of making a career from our nuggets of wisdom. We are the raw material of conferences, clinics, expos and trade shows. Why no respect?!

Show producers want the prospective speaker to believe that the show offers visibility and a chance to hawk a related organization, product, service—or a special interest, such as a new standard, perspective or political agenda. At the very least, they want you to accept that it gooses up your career résumé.

Can expert speakers get paid for preparation, packaging and pizazz? Do credentials and communication skills bring credibility to an event? Are we not a critical component of the draw? It certainly isn’t easy. So let’s explore the reason for this difficulty—and the method that I use to overcome it.

Here’s a quick Q&A related to the difficulty in marketing an expert, live presentation as a fair consulting relationship:

Can a non-celebrity academic or industry expert get
paid for expertise, preparation and delivery?
Answer: It’s damn hard!
Do credentials & credibility help to draw an audience? Yes, absolutely!
Do producers recognize content value? Do any start negotiations by offering payment? Rarely. They argue that a stage or audience represents bigger value than your expertise
How can the speaker get a conference to value experience, preparation, travel and presentation? Substantiate & defend the expert value; Participate in promotion

Each time that you solicit a conference or respond to outreach, be prepared for the reverse value gambit. The host or producer positions their stage as a product. No compensation for you. They hope that each speaker will view himself as a client, rather as an asset that produces and delivers expert content.

Solution: Don’t be discouraged. It is not a job offer, just a starting point—just a slick sales pitch. Your goal is to move the value exchange from below the water line to top-of-hill. You can do this, because without you, they do not have a product to offer their real clients.

The value exchange must be flipped and justified. As an expert speaker, you must turn the equation around by marketing your exceptional value to the producer.

MIT Bitcoin Expo with Andreas Antonopoulos

The conference producer has not factored in all that you do. Point out that your value is a critical component to success. Enumerate the things you bring to the table:

  • Expert content
  • Engaging & entertaining delivery
  • Availability to participate in market media interviews and guerrilla marketing
  • Increased likelihood to capture additional sponsors
  • Availability to participate in VIP mixers

All of these things counter a reverse-value proposition. Prepare to argue all of these points eloquently, with the very first hint of reverse value. It won’t work every time, but eventually, you will find producers that value talent and know how to leverage your expert presentation, your reputation and the value of putting you in contact with journalists, TV anchors, sponsors and VIP attendees.

So what about the negotiation that started in the Linked-In messages shown below? Will I present in Switzerland in March? I don’t yet know. That dialog has just begun. Sometimes, I am successful at reversing the value proposition and sometimes I am not. Last year, I was fairly compensated for presentations in South Africa, India, Canada and Dubai, where I gave the keynote speech. But for a larger fraction of opportunities, either my fee proposal is rejected, or the offer fails to meet my minimum requirement.

For now, I don’t get frustrated about accepting a low fraction of speaking gigs. Interest in Bitcoin, altcoins and especially the blockchain is growing rapidly. Although I can only flip a fraction of show producers, there are four or five big shows in my field—somewhere in world—every week. For now, I am happy to land just a few.

Of course, one can organize and host their own show. My business partner Manny and I produced, publicized and hosted The Bitcoin Event in New York. We formed the Cryptocurrency Standards Association, partnered with a university network, recruited our own speakers, and promoted the affair with incentives and office space from the New York state.

That was fun, but I prefer to deliver content and excite an audience from the stage, rather than organize, produce and host a conference. At this stage of my career, I want the certainty of a presentation gig that comes with an airline ticket and a hotel reservation.


Host: [Seeks to have me talk at his conference. But there’s a catch!]

Hello Ellery, Finance World Expo will take place in Zug, Switzerland on 6-7 of March 2019.

Our expo strives to bring you, C-level executives, Founders, and Advisers from the leading companies in the industry, as well as promising and innovative start-ups.

A wide range of speaking opportunities and round panels enable our Sponsor’s to predict and shape the future of Finance. Being a part of our Expo offers a great chance to present your ideas to the wide community and get worldwide brand exposure. Awards are given to the best projects in the categories will enable the Winners to flash in the Finance Sector.

Finally, our beautiful location with facilities and high-level services ensure a perfect atmosphere for networking.

Can I send you some more information?
Use this code for a -20% ticket discount: FWxxxxx

regards, Łukasz Paszkiewicz
Co-Founder of Finance World Expo

_____________________________________

Me: [This is where I hint that the value exchange must be reveresed]

Hi Łukasz,

I am available during March. I would be honored if you consider me a prospective speaker. I charge a fee for speaking at economics conferences, and am qualified to be a keynote. I can bring cryptocurrency and blockchain expertise to your conference in a way that your audience and other speakers will fully understand and many will embrace

~Ellery Davies, bitcoinreferee.com 《 qualifications

_____________________________________

Host: [A horse trade begins. I must convince him that expertise has value. it is an asset—rather than a sales opportunity]

Ellery, Normally we charge for speaking.  Here are our packages for presenters: https://financeworldexpo.com/sponsorship/ We can offer you 25% discount. Additionally if you can introduce us some partners we can offer you free seminar or place in a panel.

Best regards, Łukasz, financeworldexpo.com
Next Step: Review your 
Sponsorship Opportunity  ←  Subtle! It means he wants money

_____________________________________

Me: [Get host to request a quote] …

Yes, Łukasz. I certainly understand that you normally charge your speakers. This is because your speakers seek value in promoting their product, company, ICO or consulting service.

On the other hand, I am more accurately your show talent. I will visit with local news and media before the show to help fill walk-in seats. I will give the audience something that excites them and makes them believe that the show was productive for both their employers and their personal careers. I will give a positive and long-lasting impression of Finance World Expo. In turn, it gives you something that you can take to the bank.

With other speakers (especially at a trade show, clinic or non-academic conference), visitors sometimes feel that they have paid money to be pitched. They can get a pitch at Amazon or Walmart — but at your expo, value comes from being enlightened. Value comes from getting up on their toes and passionately participating with the presenter.

I can do this. I can partner and create value, excitement and a strong impression that your expo exceeded expectations. My role at the event differs from other speakers. For example:

  • I am not selling anything. I will appear at your expo for the sole purpose of exciting and enlightening guests. That’s what I do.
  • I am a versatile speaker on blockchain, Bitcoin adoption, scaling, regulation, economics, banking and government.  I motivate audiences.
  • Bitcoin/Blockchain credentials  ←  Do you stack up? Experts must invite comparison!
  • I have hosted and presented Bitcoin conferences, including The New York Bitcoin Event
  • In the past year, I was keynote or headliner at conferences on 4 continents.
  • I am moderator at the world’s largest Bitcoin community: 50,000 members at LinkedIN
  • As columnist & editor, I fill seats with press coverage: local TV interviews before your event

That’s my pitch. If you consider our exchange from this perspective, you may come to value your speaker as key content, a pull through tool, and a significant revenue opportunity. To add additional value, I will help you work with existing sponsors to cover my stipend. I can wear their shirt, hand out their bling, and talk to visitors about the value that they bring.

~Ellery

3 thoughts on “Conference speakers: Get paid–or pay up!

  1. Hello again, Ellery~

    I find this subject quite interesting, especially after being invited to speak at cryptocurrency conference being held to introduce a new fine art crypto token in Sichuan, China. I accepted the invitation because my wife would be attending an opening for an art exhibit of her paintings in Sydney that weekend, and I would be home alone in Beijing. I thought; “What the hell, this could be interesting and fun, plus a good opportunity for networking.

    True to your description, they didn’t pay me anything. But the amazing thing is they paid my flight to Chengdu, my hotel at the Grande Hilton, all food, as a car & driver. They even provided a beautiful young woman translator throughout my trip. Needless to say, it was a great experience and my 15 minute talk generated tremendous positive feedback. I had many valuable conversations and collected lots of business cards.

    Do you find that your invitations to speak are generated solely by your professional reputation in areas of expertise? Or, do you also use a booking agent and if so, does that agent result in a higher percentage of paid speaking gigs? I think that I might be able to generate a little side hustle revenue by making myself available for speaking here in China… But I am not quite sure how to get the word out that I am available.

    I do have several friends in the movie production, acting and modeling businesses, so have the idea of finding an agent in my head. However I also think that finding work for public speakers might not be a niche where they could be useful to me.

    What are your thoughts about this? Plus, if you have experience with agents (either in U.S. or internation), what fees have you paid?

    I always look forward to your replies and enjoy hearing from you. Thank you.

    Stephen Volenec
    Executive Director
    ICFA INTL Contemporary Fine Art
    LAB International Artist Residencies
    Los Angeles/Beijing
    http://www.icfa.world
    949.554.7731

    • Hi Stephen,

      It’s good to see you back at Wild Duck. Thank you for contributing again.

      You raise several opservations and questions. Here a few bulleted responses in no particular order:

      • No. I have not tried to use an agent. On several occasions, I set out to do so, but encountered obstacles…

      a) “Legitimate” agencies (those with a respectable roster and a verifiable track record) require lots of videos, testimonials and paperwork. I was just not up for a process that entails a “job application”.

      b) Agencies with a lesser track record, want a high percentage of proceeds and — more critically — they want an exclusive. They would not even allow me to exclude existing clients and prospective clients from their commission contract.

      • Regarding your acceptance of appearing at conferences with travel & hotel reimbursement, but without a fee…

      a) I get it — especially if you are only appearing on stage for 15 minutes. I used to justify these conferences based on the free travel and the increased gravitas that they might give to my resume.

      b) But there came a time when I was shutting down other career projects and focusing on the fields in which I had polished my live presentations. I had to acknowledge that this was becoming my *primary* means of income. And so, I worked hard to distinguish myself from unpaid speakers — especially those that were promoting a trade show booth or company/product.

      c) I still occasionally speak without a fee. But, I generally limit such engagements to (i) local venues to test a presentation, get feedback and ascertain questions that arise, or (ii) venues that I was planning to attend anyway. In these no-comp situations, I work even harder to generate partnerships, cut deals, or look for contacts with potential.

      Good luck in your entry into my space (cryptcurrency conferences). The potential is enormous and the public interest in blockchain projects has yet to reach its potential. It is just beginning. Great speakers who can educate and motivate are rare and appreciated. We have the potential to make a difference long after a conference ends and the visitors return to their homes and businesses.

      ~Ellery

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